Porfirio Gutierrez’s weaving knowledge
When Porfirio Gutierrez’s family of Zapotec weavers began considering how they could continue to support themselves with their weaving, one solution became clear: share their knowledge and wisdom freely with as many people as possible. Like the theory behind open source computer programming, they knew that by giving people the keys to their artistic traditions, they would unlock a future of greater possibilities for everyone. The “code” in this case was their encyclopedic knowledge of weaving patterns, natural dye recipes and fiber cultivation passed down through generations of traditional weavers. Embedded in that weaving code were Zapotec legends, creation myths, and an abiding respect for nature that frames their daily lives.
The Gutierrez family are recognized as masters of their craft, having multiple generations of weavers in their family tree. Currently, there are three generations involved in the family business in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. Juana Gutierrez, Porfirio’s sister, possesses a vast knowledge base of dye techniques, recipes and organic materials that she calls upon in her daily work. Her husband works alongside her at the studio and several of their nieces and nephews contribute to both weaving and design innovations, working on looms as well as computers to create new patterns.
The family agreed to open their studio and home to students from their local community and further afield, recognizing that what they knew would benefit experienced weavers and new students alike.They saw in their own village that the younger generations were not fully aware of how vibrant and diverse their weaving traditions were, nor were they looking at weaving as a profession in the same way that their ancestors had. In more recent times, weaving had become somewhat corporatized, with certain families controlling both the availability of raw materials and the means of distributing finished textiles to the marketplace. Designs were often repeated because they sold well to tourists and innovation was lacking. With pricing and sales in the hands of a few, there were fewer young weavers who could sustain the craft or create innovative designs independent from the predetermined distribution network.
Porfirio, who divides his time between Oaxaca and his home in the United States, recognized that his family could make a difference in Teotitlan’s weaving community. He began advocating for weavers to strictly use natural dyes over synthetics, and he traveled extensively to educate people in the U.S. and Mexico as to the environmental, economic and artistic benefits of adopting time-honored weaving practices. Through his own creative designs, he could show people how it was possible to innovate and extend Zapotec traditions in exciting new directions. He makes the connection between sustaining an art form and sustaining the economic viability and environmental health of his home community.
He eventually gained the attention of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, which selected him for its Artist Leadership Program in 2015. Porfirio was able to study the extensive collections housed at their Cultural Resource Center, and was awarded a grant to return to Teotitlan to teach a younger generation of weavers the possibilities of working strictly with natural dyes. “The youth in our village may never know the arts of their ancestors unless they are shown by the remaining masters who are still practicing our ancient techniques,” he noted. The future, as Porfirio saw it, would come from looking back and learning about the plants, minerals and natural dye materials that his ancestors once cultivated. Through that study, his students would gain a deeper understanding of their place in their community, along with a closer connection to Zapotec history, art and culture.
In the summer of 2016 Porfirio gathered a group of young students for the first community workshop. They studied indigenous plants, learning how to recognize them and to extract their rich hues. His sister, Juana, shared her extensive knowledge of dyeing and blending colors with the students in a series of classes. They told stories as part of this process, and created innovative, experimental designs that delved into Zapotec belief systems. They saw their past as something living, relevant, and meaningful, and brought that to their work on the looms.
Seeing how his students’ eyes were now open to new possibilities, Porfirio continued to ask how they could share these experiences with a wider audience. With Juana and their extended family, they have just launched a workshop program for guests, taking in small groups to study, experiment and experience the daily rhythms of life in Teotitlan. Juana is the maestra in charge of the workshops and she loves having visitors from around the world share in her art and passion. Their mother offers hands-on chocolate making if people would like to learn some of her best recipes, or accompany her on a trip to the market. By opening their home and studio, the family freely shares their daily life with her guests, and everyone gains from the experience. There is time for weaving and dyeing, but also for cooking, sharing stories, walking through the village and exploring the natural environment that bursts with diverse plants and animals.
“We are extremely proud to be inviting people here to learn and live with us,” says Porfirio. “We are operating our business in an inclusive, truly Zapotec, way, as a collaboration. And we are among the first tour and residency programs to be owned and operated by Zapotecs, not people from outside Mexico.” It’s a step forward, a natural progression, a link to the past and a gateway to future growth for one family and their community as a whole.
To learn more about the Gutierrez family studio, their workshops and guesthouse, you may visit weavingoaxaca.com. With space for up to six visitors at a time, small groups can enjoy a complete immersive experience with unique study and travel opportunities designed around their individual interests. Day trips, extended projects and residency opportunities are all available for interested guests.
Visitors to this year’s International Folk Art Festival in Santa Fe can see some of Porfirio’s recent weavings featured in the Innovations group of exhibiting artists